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Reading the Future and Freeing the Will

Reading the Future and Freeing the Will

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 Hortulus: The Online Graduate Journal of Medieval Studies
Vol. 2, No. 1, 2006
 
www.hortulus.net 30
Reading the Future and Freeing the Will:Astrology of the Arabic World and Albertus Magnus
by Scott HendrixAlbertus Magnus, or “Albert the Great,” wrote the work now known as the
Speculumastronomiae
around the year 1260.
1
In part, the
Speculum
acted as an introduction to the scienceof astrology and the sources necessary for the serious astrologer. Yet more importantly, itprovided a thorough and knowledgeable defense of the science of astrology in the face of religiously motivated opposition. In order to accomplish these goals, Albert drew on a largenumber of astrological and astronomical texts written by authors from various backgrounds, buthis most important sources were those of Arabic writers in Latin translation.
2
This study analyzeshow these works influenced Albert’s understanding of astrology, as well as the ways in which hemade conscious or even unconscious use of this Arabic scholarship.The integration of the scientific principles of astrology and its sister science, astronomy, into theWestern tradition involved far more than a transmission of Greek scholars, such as Ptolemy,through Arabic intermediaries. Arabic scholars creatively blended many traditions to create ahybridized Arabic science. The evidence demonstrates that the transmission of scientific ideas tothe Latin Christian world from the Arabic world involved extensive Arabic contributions, notonly in technical aspects, but also in how those sciences were understood and accepted. I arguethat Arabic philosophical justifications for the acceptability of the predictive sciences, within areligious context which held free will to be axiomatic, provided Albert with a ready-maderesponse to religious critics of judicial astrology, that is, making judgments about future eventsor discovering the most propitious times to perform certain actions.
3
 While it is widely known that Arabic science influenced the West, it is less well known thatArabic justifications for these sciences could also impact the usage and development of suchsciences by Christian scholars.
4
Yet the Christian and Muslim worldviews of the period were notso very different: the two groups shared a deity as well as certain religious texts and Aristotelianmodes of interpreting their religious beliefs.
5
Contemporaries, however, often focused on thedifferences; even some modern scholars have asserted that Latin Christendom was too hostiletoward Islam to be influenced to any significant degree by these competing religious ideas.
6
Infact, medieval Christian attitudes toward Islamic religious thought are often portrayed as filledwith barely restrained outrage.
7
Within the context of such an interpretation, it would seem thatChristian scholars in the medieval period might borrow Arabic science, but would not beinterested in the philosophical justifications that were used to integrate that science into acompeting religious tradition.Fortunately, current research is beginning to undermine the simplistic interpretation stressingvitriolic Christian attitudes toward Islam. The work of Thomas Burman indicates that someChristian intellectuals did in fact study the Qu’ran with a measure of respect.
8
For example, Peterthe Venerable, the twelfth-century abbot of Cluny, did not content himself with a regurgitation of standard Christian attacks on Islam.
9
Instead, his refutations of Christian misperceptions of Muslim attitudes toward such central subjects as the Christian Trinity and the ProphetMuhammad indicate a close study of the Qu’ran and a desire for accuracy.
10
Christian polemicwas not overly concerned with accuracy; such a close scrutiny of the Qu’ran seems indicative of 
 
 Hortulus: The Online Graduate Journal of Medieval Studies
Vol. 2, No. 1, 2006
 
www.hortulus.net 31real interest and respect. Furthermore, Thomas Burman has shown that the translation of theQu’ran that Peter worked from demonstrates that Robert of Ketton made frequent appeal toMuslim commentaries in order to insure the highest degree of clarity possible.
11
If such men asPeter the Venerable and Robert of Ketton could treat the Qu’ran with respect in applyingthemselves to a careful study of the text and its meanings, it stands to reason that some scholarsof the Christian West could approach preexisting Islamic justifications for science created bytheir Muslim counterparts with equal respect. In some ways a borrowing of ideas seems natural,since the two religions do have common ground.
12
 Albert the Great’s
Speculum astronomiae
provides extensive evidence of cross-culturalborrowing of scientific and philosophical ideas in its presentation of astronomy and astrology.
13
 But in order to understand the influence of scholars of the Arabic world on Albert’s work, it isfirst necessary to understand how and why astrology could be considered a hard science in thethirteenth century. Modern scholars have so discredited astrology that it now merits littleattention beyond the realms of the history of science.
14
For a large number of medievalintellectuals, from Albert to Peter d’Ailly, there was no question of judicial astrology’s efficacy.Numerous empirical studies
15
and sophisticated mathematical theories promoted confidence inthe discipline.
16
Judicial astrology held an important place in the structural framework of themedieval intellectual tradition that informed politics, military science, philosophy, and culturaland social mores, to name only a few areas of its recognized influences.
17
From advice given tokings to the guidance that astrologers offered to merchants, it is difficult to overestimateastrology’s wide-ranging impact.
18
This impact was long lasting as well, remaining alive in theminds of scholars as late as Johannes Kepler.
19
None of this would have been possible withoutArabic contributions; thus it is important that we understand how astrology was practiced as ascience in the Arabic world and how Europe received it. As a result we see that the Westinherited both a system of thought as well as an accompanying body of philosophical justifications that had been elaborated by scholars working in a Muslim milieu.Astrology elicited suspicion in the Arab world from the earliest period of Islam. Astrologerswere associated with the ancient
kahhan
(diviner priests), whom Mohammad, according totradition, had denounced.
20
There were no Arabic translations of scientific astrological treatisesuntil the ninth century, which both limited the practice of astrology and fostered suspicion of predictive sciences. The first translation of an astronomical text did not occur until 803, wheneither Ibrahim al-Fazari or his son Muhammad translated the Indian
Sindhind 
, a work based onAlexandrian Greek learning. The
Sindhind 
was a treatise on astronomy and mathematics notdesigned for practical application, and as such served as an immediate catalyst for heightenedinterest in the celestial sciences. Shortly thereafter, an unknown scholar translated Ptolemy’sAlmagest to fill the gaps left by the
Sindhind 
. The
 Almagest 
, along with Euclid’s
 Elements
,provided the basis for the practice of applied astronomy, or what would come to be known asastrology. Such an interest in the applied science of judicial astrology, rather than mathematicalastronomy, was emblematic of the Arabic approach to Greek learning, which was directed not atabstract subjects such as poetry or drama but rather at the practical arts, such as astronomy andmedicine.It did not take long, however, for Islamic intellectuals to attack the practice of astrology. Earlyassaults on its accuracy, such as the poem written in 838 by Abu Tammam al-Habib ibn Aws,had little impact.
21
Much more serious, however, were the charges leveled against the astrologersfor their supposed opposition to the Islamic faith. This is typified by the anonymous accusation
 
 Hortulus: The Online Graduate Journal of Medieval Studies
Vol. 2, No. 1, 2006
 
www.hortulus.net 32directed at Abu Ma’ shar that he had “studied astrology until he became an atheist.”
22
A chargeof atheism was dangerous indeed, for it threatened to implicate those students of the so-calledforeign sciences, which included medicine, the natural sciences, mathematics, geography,alchemy, and mechanics.
23
 Such attacks on astrology were problematic for practitioners, but this did not stop astrologersfrom plying their craft in almost every domain of public life.
24
Thus even before the science of astrology had been fully developed, almost every court had an astrologer in residence, andArabic elites made ready use of astrologers as advisors. Despite the religious opposition itencountered, a system of astrology based on Greek learning was quite attractive to thesophisticated intellectuals of the eighth- and ninth-century Arabic world and those whoemployed them, because it promised to explain the universe in terms of a well-defined structureof interrelated bodies interacting in a predictable and logical fashion.
25
The founding of Baghdadin 762 is the most notable example of an elite appealing to an astrologer. The Caliph al-Mansurhad the first stone of the city laid in accordance with the astrological casting of an election,meant to determine the most propitious time for an action, by the Persian Jew Masha’allah (d.815).
26
 Given such an important role in both courtly life and society at large, astrologers thrived in spiteof continuing opposition. They could not ignore accusations, however, that their science opposedIslamic faith. The primary motivation for these charges was the concern that a science promisingto predict the future removed any possibility for the free exercise of human will. Since free willwas just as axiomatic for the dominant expressions of the Islamic faith as for Christianity, thiswas a most serious accusation.
27
 The Muslim astrologer whose works most influenced the West addressed this charge, and it washis justification that Albert would promote in his own defense of astrology. Abu Ma’ shar Ja’farbin Muhammad al-Balkhi, known to the West as Albumasar, was born in Khurasan in 787 anddied in Iraq in 886.
28
Abu Ma’ shar argued that astrology was superior to all other forms of natural philosophy. He believed it provided the basis for the other sciences, while such fields asmedicine merely expanded its principles in a narrowly utilitarian fashion.
29
To promoteastrology, Abu Ma’ shar wrote compendiums of astrological axioms intended as practicalmanuals.
30
However, he viewed himself as much more than simply a compiler of others’ ideas.He believed that all thought was derived from a single antediluvian revelation; thus, by piecingtogether elements from different sources, a scholar could arrive at a single “Truth.”
31
Ultimatelyhis methodology led him to an important original contribution of how to reconcile astrology withIslamic religious principles. Abu Ma’ shar introduced the concept of the “rational soul,” or man’sfree will coupled with the cognitive abilities that differentiated him from animals, which was freefrom the influence of the stars.
32
This soul, along with all else that a man possessed, came fromGod.
33
In a blending of Aristotelian and Neoplatonic ideas, Abu Ma’ shar envisioned the soul,divine gift to man, descending from the heavens through three spheres: the divine (the sphere of light), the ethereal (the eight celestial spheres), and the hylic (the sublunar core, including theEarth).
34
 Abu Ma’ shar associated God with the Aristotelian Prime Mover, who was the efficient cause of all earthly actions, following Aristotle’s delineation of causes.
35
Thus God creates man, provideshim with a soul, and influences that “rational soul” toward actions; but since man has free will,this is an influence, powerful though it may be, that may be overcome through exercise of thewill.
36
These influences did not provide the only motivation for the soul. Since it had descended

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